Researchers have long studied cancer to learn more about how cells that cause the disease change. As a result of these studies, scientists are progressing on the field of development of drugs that specifically target cell mutations. Unlike chemotherapy drugs, targeted cancer treatments provide fewer, less severe side effects.
Targeted cancer treatments, called targeted therapy, is a relatively new form of treatment for cancer. This treatment uses drugs to identify and attack cancer cells with more precision. The goal of the drugs is to leave normal cells undamaged. Many patients with cancer are now treated using targeted therapy.
Just like chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapy drugs enter the patient through the bloodstream and then travel throughout the body to treat cancer where it exists. This is helpful when cancer has spread to other organs by metastasis.
Chemotherapy has not proven effective for liver cancer patients. A liver cancer diagnosis is a bleak one, providing less hope for a positive prognosis than other forms of cancer. Because chemotherapy fails these patients, doctors have been interested in targeted therapies as a possible benefit.
First Liver Cancer Targeted Therapy
In 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved sorafenib, also known as its brand Nexavar, for treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. The liver cancer targeted therapy was approved after phase III clinical trials showed the drug provided a median survival duration of 10.7 months, almost three months longer than patients not receiving the drug. While this time period still is quite short for extending life, it can matter a great deal to patients and their loved ones who want just a little more time.
Sorafenib works in two ways against liver cancer. First, it helps to stop tumors from forming new blood vessels. Tumors need new blood vessels to grow. The drug also attacks proteins that help cancer cells grow.
Patients take a pill form of Sorafenib twice daily and experience some side effects, including rash, loss of appetite, diarrhea, fatigue, high blood pressure, and problems with palms of hands or soles of feet, including pain, redness, swelling or blisters.
Problems with Existing Targeted Therapy for Liver Cancer
Patients provided with Sorafenib were shown to experience benefit only if they were in good physical condition at the time of the drug’s delivery. They also had controlled cirrhosis, not more aggressive cirrhosis, when taking Sorafenib. For patients with more advanced or uncontrolled cirrhosis, the medication did not prove as helpful.
One of the other issues regarding Sorafenib is its cost. The median monthly price for the drug is almost $11,000 per month for a Medicare part D plan patient. For plans requiring cost sharing of at least 25 percent for filling the prescription, this can add up to tens of thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expense for only a handful of extra months of life.
Other Advancements for Liver Cancer Targeted Treatment
In May 2016, University of Eastern Finland and Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen researchers announced their discovery of a new molecular mechanism for slowing or stopping progression of hepatocellular carcinoma, liver cancer.
The researchers found that both mouse and human liver cancer cells died when a type of protein and a specific drug molecule were introduced. Computer-aided molecular modeling was used for the scientists to analyze liver cancer protein interactions, so they could understand how the interactions could be inhibited.
This study’s results provide a glimmer of hope toward development of effective treatments for patients with liver cancer. The two universities have subsequently launched a project to focus on developing a drug using their research findings. Other universities and research institutes in Europe are joining in these efforts.